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Killed in the Ratings
A Matt Cobb Mystery
By William L. DeAndrea
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1978 William L. DeAndrea
All rights reserved.
"What kind of day was it? A day like all days, filled with those events which alter and illuminate our time." —Walter Cronkite, "You Are There" (CBS)
SOMETIMES PEOPLE CALL IT the Tower of Babble.
It erupts from Sixth Avenue the way the igneous rock it's made of once erupted from some prehistoric volcano. Thirty-seven stories of somber stone and nonreflecting brown glass, it stands in eye-catching contrast to the gleaming spikes of the other skyscrapers; negative space in a sculpture of mirrors.
Its official name is Network International Headquarters, shortened in telegrams and interoffice memos to NetHQ. Architecturally, NetHQ is unique, but functionally, it is one of four. Evenly spaced along Sixth Avenue (only tourists and letterheads say "Avenue of the Americas"), these four office buildings are the focus of the process that determines what 200 million Americans will be offered during the six-hours-plus per day the average television set is turned on.
From the outside, there's nothing about NetHQ that marks it as the nerve center of a TV and radio network and the corporate octopus it spawned to support it, with the exception of the tasteful sign in the plaza, proudly but quietly proclaiming the world-famous nonverbal symbol that identifies the Network instantly.
But, from the minute you step inside, you know it's different. You can feel it. I did, for maybe the thousandth time that May morning as soon as the brown-glass and bronze revolving door spun me out into the marble lobby.
Does Exxon, for example, line people up in their lobby to sell tickets for a tour of the corporate headquarters?
Six years ago, after I'd just been hired by the Network, I took the tour, feeling just like a kid on Christmas morning. Now I'd gotten used to the toy, but not tired of it, and I envied the school kids anxiously waiting for the teacher to dole out the tickets, because they had the thrill of seeing all the hardware ahead of them for the first time.
They'd see the bottom two-thirds of the building. The bottom third would kind of ease them into it; it contains the departments whose business it is to deal directly with the public (Ticket Services, Audience Relations, exhibits, restaurant), and the local TV and radio stations.
The middle section of the Tower is the real science-fiction part, the nuts-and-bolts section, a honeycomb of studios and control rooms; Network News and Network Operations. Here is where the soap operas and game shows come from, and where the prime-time shows from the West Coast are sent out over Ma Bell's coaxial cables to stations all over the country, and from there to your house.
What the students wouldn't see was what went on in the top nine floors of NetHQ. Kids wouldn't be interested, anyway. It takes an adult's eyes to see that this is where it all really happens; that in these nine floors of pristine white offices decisions are made that affect the eating, sleeping, lovemaking, even the bladder habits of America.
And it's not only television the people who work in the offices are concerned with, either. There's radio, of course, but there's also records and tapes. Movie theaters. Industrial and consumer electronics. Books and magazines. And the Minneapolis Hoops of the NBA.
I once cherished dreams of being a Minneapolis Hoop, if I couldn't be a New York Knickerbocker, but I was only pretty good, and if you stop growing at six-two, you'd better be a whole hell of a lot better than pretty good if you want to play pro basketball. I wound up working for the Network.
I got on the computer-controlled, high-speed, stainless steel elevator that would whisk me to my office on the thirty-fifth floor. I had a kind of homesick feeling as the numbers of the production floors blinked when I sped by. I had to remind myself I had risen above all that.
At the Network, and I suppose in any large corporation, there is no standing still. If you are not moving up, you are backing up. If you turn down a promotion, you sign your career's death warrant. Being happy with what you've got is the one sin that is never forgiven.
Until just a little over three years ago, I had been rising slowly but perceptibly through the ranks of the news department of the local TV station. I'd been hired as a desk assistant, and had made it up to associate producer, the same job Mary Tyler Moore is supposed to have had. It's a lot tougher and a lot more exciting in real life, and I loved it. I looked forward to the day I might even become a full-fledged producer.
Then, I got my Big Break. One afternoon, word filtered down from on high that I was to report to the office of Mr. Hewlen, the Lord and Master of the Network. He was a legend in the industry. Mr. Hewlen had visualized his empire back in the days when you needed headphones to hear a radio program.
Mr. Hewlen, at that time, was still President as well as Chairman of the Board. At eighty, he was still running the day-to-day operation of the Network, practically single-handed. Even today, he still made all the Major Decisions.
The fact that I, Matthew Cobb, should be a Major Decision was a shock in itself. I covered up my nervousness before I walked across that enormous penthouse office to come face to face with the tidy little man with the unruly shock of grey hair.
"Kid," he said (he always called me kid), "I've been looking over your record, and I've decided you're qualified, uniquely qualified, you might say, to fill an executive opening we've got. What do you say?"
What did I say, he asked. I was so thrilled, it took an effort of will to keep from vaulting his desk and hugging him. "Thank you very much, sir," I told him. "I'm honored."
He gave me the con man's grin, the one that means he's got you. "Good. Starting Monday, you're the new assistant to McFeeley down in Special Projects."
I thanked him again. I could not believe my luck. Unfortunately, I had been a little confused. I had thought he meant Special Events, which at our Network means space shots, and coronations and things like that. It's a common mistake. It didn't take me long to find out why.
The Network doesn't talk about the Department of Special Projects. Special Projects is the guerrilla band of Broadcasting. We wait in the weeds until some incident pops up that could harm or embarrass the Network. For example, if an important congressman has a favorite show, we'll find out what it is and whisper to the programming department not to cancel it until after the licensing bill is dealt with. We'll follow the kleptomaniac star around and pay for what she stole. We do everything that's too touchy for Public Relations, and too messy for the legal department.
Once I knew what I'd be doing, it was easy to see what my "unique qualifications" for the job were: I was at home on the street, but I could fake it well in society because I had mingled with the children of the Beautiful People at the small, snooty upstate college that gave me its one basketball scholarship that year. I had investigative experience, having been an MP after the NBA didn't draft me but the Army did. And I had contacts in both the press corps and (probably most important) the New York Police Department. And I wasn't indispensable anywhere else in the Network.
The three years since I had joined Special Projects had been interesting, to say the least. Sometimes, it had also been a little sickening, but I'd been in the same place for three years, and at the Network, if you're not moving up, you are backing up.
Then, the week before, I had gotten what was maybe my second Big Break. Hugh McFeeley, my boss, had gone into the hospital to have a hip joint replaced, and for six months, at least, Special Projects was mine. Maybe I could do something spectacular enough to get promoted out of it, and into Programming or Production; something more like communication and less like manipulation.
The elevator whooshed to a stop. The door slid open, and a cheery little bell announced my arrival. I waited a second for my internal organs to snap back to their proper places, then stepped out onto the thirty-fifth floor. You can tell how important you are to the corporation by how high up you are in the building. Special Projects has a tiny corner on the floor with the Programming Department. Only the President and the Sales Department, on the thirty-sixth, and Mr. Hewlen in the penthouse are above us.
The sterile aspirin white of the corridor is softened at that time in the morning (about nine) by splashes of color from the stenographic pool. Every year, the Network broadcasts five beauty contests, but I've yet to see a beauty queen we couldn't beat with someone from our own tower. And they never seem to get any older. Personnel must harvest a new crop of beautiful girls every six months.
It was nine oh one and sixteen seconds when I walked into the outer office, but nobody expects the boss to be on time, anyway. Jasmyn Santiago, the secretary I'd inherited while McFeeley was out, smiled me a Cuban sunrise and said, "Good morning, Mr. Cobb."
"Good morning, Jazz. Anything pressing?"
She'd been doing her nails. She blew on them to dry them. She was brown and bright and bouncy, and so cute not even blue nail polish and white lipstick could ruin her.
"Yes, sir, there's a few things." She picked up the report from the graveyard shift people. I was glad I didn't have to rotate into that duty any more.
"Kenny Lewis is in trouble again," she said, "possession of cocaine up in Connecticut."
"Okay," I said. "We'll let him sit there for a day or so before we see about springing him." Kenny Lewis is a juvenile delinquent Special Projects has to get out of hot water about once a month. We do it to keep his mother happy. You would be shocked to find out who his mother is, and so would he, but she is a woman the Network wants kept happy. I think she'd do better by her secret son if she just left him alone, but mine not to reason why, mine but to take orders.
"What else?" I asked Jazz.
"News wants coffee and doughnuts on election night this year. They say pizza gives them a heartburn."
"The Anchorman's just getting old." I grinned.
Jazz was shocked. She thinks the Most Trusted Man in America could stroll across the Hudson any time he took a notion to.
"Okay, who's here? Shirley? Put her on it, when she gets a chance." Shirley Arnstein wasn't exactly one of the Network sexpots, but I wouldn't have traded her for ten of them. She came to us out of Washington, where she had been on the staff of a certain congressman who had been caught satisfying his private urges with the public's money. Shirley hadn't been the fringe benefit, she'd been the one who had actually done the work. Until the scandal broke, she had, in effect, been a United States congresswoman. She was plain-looking, and came across as shy, except when representing the Network. She once woke the mayor of Buffalo, New York, at three A.M. to chew him out for lack of cooperation on a missing persons case she was conducting up there for us. She was going semisteady with Harris Brophy, who was my top field agent, the way I had been McFeeley's.
Jazz consulted her list. "You got two phone calls, too, just before nine. One, no name, no message, will call back, and one from upstairs. Mr. Falzet wants to see you."
"Swell," I said drily. "You saved the best for last, huh?"
"Sure," she said smiling. She pronounced it "chure." It was the only trace of an accent she showed. "That way, you don't start swearing and I have to repeat everything."
"Well, don't let it happen again," I said.
"Yes, sir, Boss." She saluted. Two weeks ago, she'd been giving orders to me, or at least passing them on from McFeeley. She was probably the one indispensable person in the department.
I told her I'd be back in a little while, and went upstairs to see Thomas Falzet. He was President of the Network, the second one we'd had since Mr. Hewlen kicked himself upstairs half a year ago.
I presented myself to the receptionist, who told me to take a seat. I knew he had me cooling my heels for effect; he wasn't busy with anything, especially not at a quarter after nine. When you're the president of a corporation, they don't pay you hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to work, they pay you to be responsible for whatever happens. It's a good system. That way, they can fire you when things go wrong. Could you imagine General Motors canning the production line workers because profit was down?
While I was waiting, I sized up the receptionist, trying to decide if Falzet was sleeping with her. He had a reputation for stuff like that. She had the repressed bombshell kind of look, as though she were trying against the odds to look unsexy. I finally decided she was pure, because she looked too smart to try to look innocent if she was really guilty, so she must naturally look innocent. The old doublethink. The President called me in before I started the triplethink process on the poor girl.
Falzet didn't stand up when I came into the room, which would have been only polite. He really didn't care much for me.
"Sit down, Cobb," he said. It was an order more than an invitation. Falzet was in his late fifties, which is actually pretty old for a broadcast executive to be promoted to President. He looked younger, though. He had the horsy-faced good looks of a John Kennedy and only a touch of grey at the temples. I had seen him in action, and he was a very smooth operator, but he saved it for the paying customers. With the hired help, he wielded the whip.
After I sat, he pretended to work some more, then looked at me and said, "I understand you've been doing some fieldwork for yourself, Cobb." There was still some Dixie in his voice.
I admitted it.
"Well, stop," he said. "It's against company policy for executives on the vice-presidential level to do that."
I'd figured it was coming. "Mr. Falzet, I'm only acting vice-president. I—"
"Cobb, the Network doesn't utilize manpower that way."
I majored in English in college. I would be an English teacher today if I hadn't been drafted, but I'm not pushy about it. I can turn perfect grammar on and off, mostly off because it sounds funny. But there are certain words and phrases that drive me up the wall, and Falzet habitually used every one of them. I heard "utilize" and winced. I also winced when he said I should go along with the "general consensus of opinion more off-tin."
"Something the matter with your eyes, Cobb?" he asked.
"No, sir." I made my face earnest. "Mr. Falzet, I appreciate the position of the Network, but right now, I need me. I'm sure you know Special Projects is the smallest department in the whole corporation. With McFeeley out, we're down to six, counting me. Brophy is working with the Russian embassy for that Olympics thing, Arnstein is woodshedding that actress who's up for the Virgin Mary spot in the Easter special. I need Santiago at the desk. The other two just came on. So, if anything else comes up that takes any experience, either I'll have to do it myself, or we'll have to fly somebody in from the Coast."
That did it. His statement to the stockholders had been a promise to economize. "Well, I can see where Special Projects is ... ah ... special. But don't go overboard, Cobb, understand?"
"Yes, sir, I'll be careful."
"Good. You do that, and we'll all stay out of trouble."CHAPTER 2
"Say the secret woid, the duck comes down, and you win a hundred dollars." —Groucho Marx, "You Bet Your Life" (NBC)
I WENT BACK TO my office to stay out of trouble. I busied myself with two great American pastimes: resenting the boss and watching TV. That was one of the really great things about filling in for McFeeley; as a vice-president, he rates a big color console in his office. That way, when a VP has nothing special to do, he can evaluate the product.
I grabbed a handful of purple jelly beans from the bag I kept locked in the desk, and settled back to watch "Agony of Love." If I see a soap opera, no matter how terrible, three days in a row, I'm hooked. I had actual withdrawal symptoms when "Dark Shadows" was canceled.
"Agony of Love" was getting good. Hank and Jessica were in the middle of an incredibly explicit (for TV) bed scene. They were sighing and moaning their heads off, and this was only Tuesday.
Excerpted from Killed in the Ratings by William L. DeAndrea. Copyright © 1978 William L. DeAndrea. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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